Lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid, was created in 1938 by Swiss chemist Dr. Albert Hofmann. It's since become a linchpin for an entire aesthetic, fueled a counterculture movement, and is being studied for potential therapeutic uses beyond its reputation as a recreational drug.

Hofmann had been studying ergot, a parasitic fungus that grows on grasses and grains, including rye and barley, and can cause headaches, hallucinations, and gangrene—a condition where lack of blood flow leads to tissue death or rot.

His research bloomed 25 different chemical compounds, the last of which he tested on himself in 1943, just before a bike ride home.

What does it do?

This semi-synthetic psychoactive substance derived from ergot can cause users to experience perception distortions and hallucinations resembling synesthesia, a neurological occurrence or trait that can cause senses to overlap, giving color to numbers and flavors to names.

The LSD molecule binds to serotonin receptors in the brain, found in spades in regions of the brain associated with learning. It's believed that this receptor binding is key to the iconic hallucinations experienced on the drug.

LSD also binds to other receptors, including those for dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with motivation, mood, and reward. The exact impact of these transmitter bindings on users' experiences of LSD is unclear; science is still learning exactly how LSD traipses around the body.

LSD "trips" can last up to 15 or so hours, even at low microgram dosages, despite the chemical clearing from the body at a faster rate. The length of these experiences may be due to the serotonin receptor, which forms a "lid" over the bonding site, slowing LSD's ability to leave the receptor.


LSD is currently classified in the US by the Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, meaning it has no accepted medical use and a high potential for user abuse.

High doses of LSD can cause adverse effects, including increased heart rate, headaches, exhaustion, and nausea. The iconic hallucinations experienced on the drug, influenced by variables such as environment and mindset, can go south, letting users descend into bad trips that can trigger psychosis and paranoia.

Ongoing research into the therapeutic potential of the odorless and colorless drug shows that it may help users dealing with symptoms of substance abuse, anxiety, and depression.

LSD is also being used as a jumping-off point for the development of new antidepressants. Many antidepressants work by increasing serotonin levels in the brain. This is reflective of LSD's ability to provide a fraction of the response triggered by serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates and assists with mood regulation, social behavior, sleep, and more.

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How to make LSD

Collection of paper acid tabs covered in chemical structure of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)
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Lysergic acid diethylamide, often shortened to LSD, comes from ergot, a parasitic fungus that can be found in grains. Chemists rearrange the fungus' chemical structure or the structure of an ergot derivative through complex chemical reactions, transforming it into the hallucinogenic bicycle-shaped LSD crystal. Due to the partially synthetic drug's criminalization, many of the details of modern LSD crafting honed by "underground chemists" are kept secret.

Art by Joos van Craesbeeck titled, Temptation of St. Anthony. Abstract painting of inhuman creatures and humans on a coast near an oversized head that's been split.
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During the summer of 1951, the French town of Pont-Saint-Esprit appeared to go mad. Hundreds were treated for hallucinations and delirium, and about 60 were institutionalized, with some reporting ongoing hallucinations a month after the LSD-like symptoms appeared. While debated, some historians and scientists argue the illness may have been ergotism, a perilous condition better known in the Middle Ages as "burning disease" and "St. Andrew's Fire."

Photo of person holding a tab of acid on their tongue.
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Animal studies involving microdoses of psilocybin, the psychoactive component in magic mushrooms and ketamine, found it helped to alleviate anxiety and inflammation, an immune response that can cause damage when chronically active. Human studies are ongoing. In at least one double-blind study, where researchers and patients don't know who got a placebo versus the real thing, about half of the participants incorrectly guessed they had been given placebos.

A long sign that reads, "acid test graduation" hangs off of a bus painted with intersecting and overlapping colors and shapes.
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Early scientific experiments suggested LSD could be effective in treating mental health conditions, such as substance use disorder. These findings were overshadowed in the US by stories of dangerous street use and claims of lasting adverse effects, leading to LSD's criminalization and strangling scientific studies for decades. Psychedelics have since made their way back to the lab, where they are again being studied for potential medical applications.

A black-and-white image of Aldous and Laura Huxley; Aldous is seated on the left and Laura is on the right, leaning forward with her head rested on her clapsed hands.
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As "Brave New World" author Aldous Huxley lay dying of cancer in 1963, he asked his wife Laura to dose him with the hallucinogen LSD. A month later, Laura Huxley wrote a letter detailing the author's final trip, which she notes ended "so slowly, so gently, like a piece of music just finishing in a sempre piu piano dolcemente." Read the letter here.

Photo of a record player.
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Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine have a playlist to accompany psilocybin users on their psychedelic journeys. Dating back to 1967, the playlist is over seven hours long and organized in such a manner as to echo users’ experiences as their trips rise, crest, and fall. According to the initial creator of the playlist, the music is a “nonverbal support system” that keeps users from prematurely returning to normal consciousness.

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